By these measures any number of figures would count as great leaders – Donald Trump, Robert Maxwell, Philip Green, Fred Goodwin, Hitler, even. Common sense tells us something else is needed – that easy checklists do not suffice. So what else?
Softer skills have recently come into vogue. “Emotional intelligence”, team development, the ability to support and develop people. These of course are valuable, if only because they rebalance an overly masculinised model of the workplace. But on their own they too can become just another, more personable way to manipulate others, to more efficiently impose a corporate agenda upon “subordinates”.
Self-awareness then? Could that be it? The ability to occupy one’s own authenticity, to spot the dissonance that arises when we are not being true to ourself. Maybe this provides the secret to great leadership?
Certainly if we are more self-aware we often know others better too. In spotting and managing our own pathologies we spot patterns and pit-falls in our teams and colleagues. Sure, I would rather have a conscious leader than an unconscious one, someone who is awake to themselves and those around them – truly awake.
But personally I find this is not enough either. I recently had a slightly fraught conversation with an American management guru, the son of a famous and insightful thinker. He was advocating a new brand of leadership based on conscious individuals coming from a place of deep reflection and contemplation.
There was something about it that made my hackles rise – I still can’t quite work out what. I think it’s because it seemed to see the individual in isolation from their context. It’s as if a conscious leader is enough, even if their organisation operates a corrupt or destructive business model.
Somewhere in the equation there has to be a place for values, morals, a sense of what’s right – above and beyond the law – which can only ever be the baseline threshold rather than the ultimate goal.
I realise this is a path fraught with problems: whose values? What if my personal values are out of synch with my organisation’s? If as organisations we allow values into the equation, don’t we run the risk of losing good people or alienating customers?
The fact that the topic of values is so problematic reminds us that we currently have no real consensus about the values we need for the world that is approaching. The social compact has been eroded, replaced by a rampant neo-liberalism that puts the bottom line above all social and environmental values. So we have no shared idea of what it means to create and maintain a sustainable society. We do not know how to consistently nurture others, to regenerate the planet, to value diversity and see all life as precious.
Moreover, we have not the faintest clue how to do any of this collaboratively as fierce and equal peers. In this context traditional models of leadership are more of a problem than they are a solution.
It’s into this void that any “leadership” programme worth its salt must step. If it is to be of any use to humanity it must grapple with wicked issues of values, sustainability and meaningful collaboration. This is a far cry from the leadership of charisma and manipulation.